At Mass on Sunday, Catholics around the world heard the gospel parable of the Good Samaritan: It is the story Jesus told of a Samaritan encountering on the road a Jewish man—a foreigner to him—who had been beaten and left for dead. While others walked by and let the man suffer, the Samaritan stopped, dressed his wounds and took him to safety despite their deep cultural differences.
At about the time that gospel was being proclaimed, President Trump tweeted out his already-famous, incendiary declaration that young Democratic congresswomen criticizing America should “go back” to the “totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”
The contrast in those Sunday messages was striking. So too was the evolution in Republican rhetoric from the days of Ronald Reagan, an earlier GOP president who, in his farewell address, talked of America as a “shining city” that was “teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace” and whose “doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.”
Mr. Trump’s tweet came at a time when the country already was pained by television images of illegal immigrants packed into chain-link pens at the border, and while the immigration and Customs Enforcement agency was beginning a wave of raids to round up undocumented immigrants.
There is a root cause for all this: The country is being riven by a seething immigration debate, left unresolved by successive administrations and Congresses. Put bluntly, the immigration system is broken and needs fixing, yet the emotions now being stirred probably are making it less likely, not more likely, that it will be fixed any time soon.
In his message, Mr. Trump was referring to a group of young congresswomen known as “the squad”—Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan. All are minorities and, despite the implication of the president’s tweet, three of the four were born in the U.S.
Ironically, the four outspoken progressives had been a far bigger problem for fellow Democrats, and specifically for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, than for Mr. Trump. They have incensed fellow Democrats by charging them with racist behavior, encouraged progressives to challenge incumbent Democratic lawmakers, and undercut the party’s attempts to modulate its message to win back moderate and working-class voters who drifted toward Mr. Trump in 2016.
In fact, comments by Trump allies suggest they would like to make those controversial congresswomen the new face of the Democratic party in the eyes of middle-of-the-road Americans.
The president’s attack on the congresswomen had significant racial overtones, because all four are women of color. But the policy debate running beneath the charged rhetoric is over immigration.
The nuts and bolts of the immigration problem now riveting the country are relatively simple. Rampant social violence and economic dislocation are compelling working men and women in Central America to seek a way out. Current immigration law and court rulings have created a muddle over when and how such people might seek asylum in the U.S., and what should be done with them when they do so.
The asylum option is drawing northward thousands of immigrants. A sensible U.S. policy solution would be to
- clarify the law’s provisions about asylum,
- establish a more sensible system for handling asylum seekers and their families, and
- provide more help to Central American nations to reduce the problems that compel people to leave in the first place.
As U.S. officials and lawmakers have concluded at various times in the past, the price of helping Central American nations solve their problems there is probably lower in the long run than is paying the financial and social prices of having the problems land here.
Nearly lost in the process is a recognition of the considerable contribution immigrants make to American society. The New American Economy is an organization, funded by business leaders, that has set out to document the contributions immigrants make to U.S. economic growth. On its website, it estimates the impact of immigrants by state, and even by city.
Example: The Kansas City metropolitan area has 140,442 immigrant residents, who pay $1 billion in taxes, have $3.1 billion in spending power, and include 9,625 immigrant entrepreneurs.
Mr. Trump’s supporters often point out that his administration supports legal immigration, and is fighting illegal immigration, which is true. Presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner has overseen the drafting of an immigration proposal that would boost border security while also setting up a merit-based immigration system that would keep the number of legal immigrants at current levels while shifting the mix more to those with needed job and technical skills.
But the congresswomen Mr. Trump targeted also are here legally, a sign of how fast rhetoric can slide downhill.